The human race has always had an awareness of its own ‘divinity’, its soul, and the belief in a ‘ higher power’ since the earliest Ice Age up to the present time. ‘Divinity’ is in us all and fear, insufficiency and inadequacy turns us towards it. Our ‘divinity’ gives us a reason for our striving, protects us from the animal side of our natures and provides rationality.
Humans are bound by cosmic laws. The sun rises and sets, stars shine, rivers run with life giving water, tides of mighty oceans rise and fall. These laws are the will of God and by conforming to them we obey that will. Without them chaos and confusion would reign.
Man has long sought to understand the purpose of his life and his ‘divinity’. Philosophy, sacred writings in Sanskrit, ancient wisdom of the Middle East and the Far East and the great learning and teaching of the Western world has given the answers, but they were not understood; too difficult for the masses to understand and the morality too demanding to embrace.
However, Faith and Belief continued to acknowledge a ‘higher power’ and man kept Faith throughout the ages. Notice how in the midst of all disasters, human minds turn to the ‘Divine’, thence comes courage.
Man has a need for religion, be it in the form of an historical, organised authority, or accepting a series of doctrines about God, man and the universe as found in Hinduism, or in the private faith of an individual. Religion can provide strong bonds in societies, thus making for a better life. Belief and faith is expressed in a variety of ways.
The Exhibition, ‘Living with Gods: People, Places and Worlds Beyond’ is part of a fourth collaboration Project between the BM, BBC and a book by Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum. Jill Cook is the Curator. John Studzinski, Chairman of Genesis Foundation has generously supported the Exhibition for which he is owed much gratitude.
This Exhibition explains how people believe through everyday objects of faith and gives a perspective of what has made belief a part of human behaviour across the world and through the centuries. The objects are arranged in themed beliefs showing their use in ritual and religious practice.
All exhibitions have a ‘star object’ and here we meet ‘Lion Man’. He is wrought in ivory from a mammoth’s tusk, stands 31 cms high and is 40,000 years old. He is half man and half lion and is the oldest example of belief in supernatural beings. This belief was prevalent in many societies;for example centaurs in ancient Greece. Maybe hybrids help people find their own place in nature on a higher religious level and to transcend it. ( Stadel Cave. Baden- Wurttemberg. Germany ).
Light was enormously significant in belief and from the sun or a lamp, it represented hope, goodness and the summer season. Echos of the Greek myth ‘Persephone’ here.
Do not miss Alan Betson’s photograph of the sun lighting up the inner of a passage tomb at New Grange. Co. Meath. This tomb is about 5,000 years old.
The theme of light again occurs in the object,’ Mosque Lamp from Aleppo. Syria . 13.000 -1340.’ It bears a calligraphy inscription from the Qur’an epitomising Allah ” as the light of the heavens and likens light to a ‘glass lamp in a niche”.
In the Bible God ” ordered light to drive away the darkness” In many beliefs ‘ darkness’ was a fear bringer.
Fire is a frequently recurring theme in beliefs across the world and much used in ritual. It is depicted in the object, ‘Tiles from a Parsi home shrine’ . We see the constantly burning fire of Ahura Mazda, God of the Zoroastrians. In this religion fire is a visual symbol of purity. No ritual takes place without it. Notice it appears in the centre of the object and prayers are directed to it. In Greek mythology Prometheus stole fire for humanity.
Objects associated with Pilgrimage are on view. This is an important ritual in beliefs worldwide. Pilgrimages to Canterbury are examined in the exhibition, also to Sarnath in India. Buddhists and Hindus go on pilgrimages. For Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca is a cornerstone and obligatory in Islam. Pilgrimages to St Jacques de Compostela are a well known example.
The world has countless festivals celebrating myriads of beliefs on a regular basis. Objects are on view from the Roman Saturnalia, Christmas, Kumbh Mela and Siberian Ysyakh. These festivals are living manifestations of faith.
The theme of sacrifice is discussed with objects associated with animal sacrifice in Greece and human sacrifice in Aztec societies. All to please the Gods.
The ‘Ibeji Figures’ from Nigeria, made in wood, represent spirits who persist after life and are believed in by the Yoruba people of West Africa. They are cared for as living persons and they give protection during birth, in life and in death.
A painted textile from Tibet, known as a ‘Thangka’, depicts the wheel of life. It is used for teaching and as a devotional object. This one depicts the world embraced by the demon, Mara and is indicative of temptation, death and impermanence. Three segments show higher realms of existence and three show the suffering of animals, ghosts and hell. The outer wheel reveals how your actions influence your future lives. Buddha is there showing the path to liberation by pointing to the moon.
Religion, sadly, due to human frailty and error, can lead to wars, fanatical behaviour and cause a spiritual crisis in man.
Observe, the stark, evocative, exhibit, ‘The Lampedusa Cross’ made from pieces of the boat wrecked off the coast of Lampedusa. Italy. It is a reminder of tragedy and eternally of hope.